Supporting student veterans is at the heart of the Military-Affiliated Student Center's (MASC) mission, and celebrating the accomplishments of those students is one of director Rita Case's favorite parts of the job.
"Veteran graduations are my absolute favorite events each year," said Case, who came to Iowa State in 2021. "I know that the students enjoy a moment of getting to be proud of their accomplishments, and I also know that it is inspiring to other students to see their friends crossing the finish line to get their degree."
Earning their degree is an important moment for any student, especially for veterans and military-affiliated students. Though the number of veterans pursuing college degrees has steadily increased thanks in part to the GI Bill and efforts to recruit and retain military-affiliated and veteran students nationwide, veterans and students in the military still face unique obstacles on the way to graduation. The MASC is striving to change that by offering support, resources and community.
Iowa State recently received a Gold ranking from the Military Friendly Schools survey and was named a Military Friendly School for 2023-24. Metrics for the ranking include graduation and retention rates along with social-based criteria like programming and recognition for military-affiliated and veteran students.
ISU was one of approximately 1,800 institutions nationwide to meet the qualifications for the Military Friendly designation and one of the 27 large universities to be ranked Gold, a denotation that represents the top 10% of schools on the list. Iowa State currently serves more than 800 military-affiliated students, and Case said most are from Iowa and the Midwest.
Case says there always is more work to be done to be the best at serving military-affiliated students, but it's nice to see efforts reflected back in the survey data.
"I appreciate the Military Friendly award because it goes beyond the work that the MASC does for this student population and is more reflective of all the work across campus that goes into making our students successful," she said.
Formed in May 2012, the then-Veterans Center initially focused on assisting recently transitioned combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who often were older students seeking not only education but accessibility and mental health services. While "veteran" implies a person has completed at least one active-duty enlistment term and is no longer serving in the military, Case said it doesn't reflect the currently serving National Guard and Reserve members as well as the ROTC cadets and direct family members of those in the service who also receive support at the MASC. This consideration inspired the center's name change in 2022.
"The focus now is more on access to academic services and career transition. With the change in our student demographic, a change of name was needed to be more inclusive of all the students that we serve," Case said.
In addition to offering academic support and assistance with navigating scholarships and financial aid, the MASC acts as a conduit for connection with Thursday Night Dinners, weekly trivia and study spaces where students can help each other with coursework. Cultivating this community can be crucial for veterans, who often cite isolation among the challenging aspects of transitioning to civilian life, as well as students currently serving.
Case said faculty in particular can help support the more than 200 students currently serving in the Iowa National Guard by encouraging communication and offering flexibility.
"Military students want to be treated the same as everyone else in the classroom. But faculty can still support these students by understanding that training may occasionally land during classroom hours and the student has no control over the timing," Case said.
The mission of the MASC is close to Case's heart as a veteran of the United States Navy and Navy Reserves who started working with veterans in higher education a decade ago as a student employee helping process GI Bill claims while pursuing her own bachelor's degree in Colorado. She was drawn to Iowa State after visiting campus and seeing Gold Star Hall -- a monument recognizing Iowa State students who died in service and the reason for the "memorial" in the building's name, Memorial Union.
"I fell in love with Gold Star Hall," Case said. "Knowing that ISU students worked so hard to make the Memorial Union building a reality to honor their classmates lost serving in World War I was physical proof to me that Iowa State University cares about those who have served."